Subway Stories

Photo: Christina Paige

John Wray, an award-winning writer you’ve likely never heard of and a “junior partner” in a poker circle that includes Myla Goldberg, Colson Whitehead, and Jonathan Lethem, has managed to avoid a day job for ten years. This frees him up to pursue his dual occupations. First and foremost, he’s the author, at 37, of three standout novels—two probing works that have been reductively catalogued under historical fiction, and a new one, Lowboy, about a teenage paranoid schizophrenic at large in the subway system. It may be just suspenseful and familiar enough to promote the Park Sloper to full partnership in Brooklyn’s literary society.

His second occupation is collecting goofball stories. “The king of the anecdotes,” Goldberg calls him. There was the time he heard rats copulating in the Dumbo warehouse where he lived in a tent rent-free; the time he rafted down the Mississippi with a New York Times columnist in a futile effort to promote his last book; the time he dressed like a clown at a dinner party—well, just because.

Those who know Wray only through his writing (and there aren’t that many) could reasonably expect a sensitive, serious, maybe even embittered soul, and not the sandy-haired, boyish extrovert in a hoodie whose mantra seems to be “You just have to keep yourself entertained.” In that Dumbo rattrap with no bathroom or kitchen, he spent a year working on his first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, about a tortured friendship in his mother’s Austrian hometown under the growing shadow of Hitler. Critics gave him a Whiting Award—a frequent predictor of literary success. His next book, the violent Canaan’s Tongue, was a Civil War novel like no other, with wild, deadly flights of fancy in place of the usual dutiful sepia cameos. Two years ago, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. And still Canaan’s Tongue sold less than 3,000 copies.

Lowboy, sort of a police procedural written from the fugitive’s point of view, may just be Wray’s Motherless Brooklyn—a long-deserved breakout from a phenomenally versatile writer who wanted to try something a little easier to swallow. “It had something to do with wanting to survive as a writer,” he admits. “Sooner or later it would be nice if I could make my publisher some money.”

The research was certainly closer to hand—and the marketing, too. For his next promotional stunt, he’s planning a reading this Thursday on the Brooklyn-bound L train; he’s also recording subway musicians for a Lowboy MP3 soundtrack. He invites me along for the taping of a cellist, then offers an excursion to the site of Lowboy’s frenzied, hallucinatory climax, beneath Manhattan’s streets. If you manage to stay on the 6 train beyond the last stop (and avoid the wrath of transit workers), peer closely out a starboard window as the car makes a squealing 180 for the return trip north: You’ll see the old City Hall station, onetime flagship of the system, vivid ocher and sea-green tiles visible under the grime, twilight beaming through a narrow skylight. The words of the eponymous Lowboy seem to unspool: “There was only one tunnel in the city but it wound and snarled together like telephone wire, threaded back on itself so it seemed to have no beginning and no end. Ouroboros was the name of the dragon that ate its own tail and the tunnel was Ouroboros also.”

Along the way, Wray rattles off the knowledge he gathered researching the book—repeated attempts to refurbish the station, the testimonials of motormen who witness track-jumping with alarming frequency. His two occupations dovetail, the anecdotes and the writing feeding into each other. “It took me a long time to pay attention to things I’ve seen a million times before,” he says.

A schizophrenic narrator will help you do that. Growing up in Buffalo as John Henderson (Wray is a pen name), the author befriended “an amazing kid” who “seemed magically free of convention,” someone who would skateboard down their high-school hallway shouting, “The Silver Bullet!” as teachers dove for cover. Several years later, the student became schizophrenic and eventually committed suicide. “It was one of the most formative single events of my adolescence,” Wray says. Waxing earnest, he rails against sensationalist depictions of the mentally ill. “There’s no need to be inaccurate,” he says. “If anything, when writing about schizophrenia, you need to do the opposite of heightening. You need to find the elements a sane person can relate to.”

In a marketplace where the heighteners hog the spotlight, this is a contrarian position. “There’s something very classical about his writing,” says Wray’s editor, FSG’s Eric Chinski, “which goes against the grain of a lot of younger writers.” Jonathan Safran Foer is a heightener. Lethem can be, too, with his supernatural flourishes. So is Gary Shteyngart, a close friend of Wray’s. In fact, Wray is reading early drafts of Shteyngart’s next novel. “I’m a satirist,” Shteyngart says, “and he helps to humanize the jerks that I have walking all over the book.” Is Shteyngart helping Wray with his next book, which Wray glosses as “One Hundred Years of Solitude meets Lucky Jim”? “No,” says Shteyngart. “He’s the helper, I’m the blurber.”

Maybe, with all the right blurbers, editors, and agent Andrew Wylie in his corner, Wray can finally break through, even in a generally dismal market. In the meantime, he makes the most of the agonies of writing; indeed, he makes them sound … fun. “He comes into the office and it turns into a half-day,” says Chinski. “We kind of joke around here, ‘What is it like to be John Wray?’ ”

Colson Whitehead confirms Wray’s exuberance, even in the face of (considerable) poker losses. And he has his own theories about his friend’s game plan (and maybe his career track): “I get the feeling that John is engaged in what they call ‘the long con,’ and he’s about to start cleaning up now that we’ve been lulled into complacency.”

By John Wray.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.

Subway Stories